John McCutcheon Interview

Photo courtesy of Irene Young
John McCutcheon is a singer, songwriter, and musician with 47 plus years of performance experience. He just released his 40th album, To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger. This is a collection of songs of music written and performed by Pete Seeger who was one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century, among Pete’s other attributes. John speaks in detail about his new album as well as touring, and many other interesting topics.
               JM – John McCutcheon                                         TL – TwangriLa
TL: Thank you for doing this interview. I really appreciate it. It’s an honor.
JM:  Well I appreciate you taking an interest in the project.
TL: I’m speaking with John McCutcheon, a musician and performer with a 50-year career and 34 albums under his belt. With John’s biography, there are endorsements from Johnny Cash and Pete Singer. Welcome.
JM: Hello. I’ll take a second to just to correct your math a little bit.
TL: Okay.
JM: One was too much and the other was too little. I’m not quite 50 years into the business. I started in 1972. And I have 40 albums out.
TL: Oh, okay. I apologize.
JM: (Laughter). It’s an easy mistake to make. There’s lots of information out there and who knows what version people get.
TL: Thank you for correcting that. When I was looking at your website, Johnny Cash said “John is the most impressive instrumentalist I ever heard.” A Johnny Cash nod is worth about a hundred other endorsements, in my opinion.
JM: Johnny was a remarkable man in many ways. And when he said that I was sitting next to my buddy Tommy Thomson, he was the banjo player for The Ramblers, and now they’ve departed, both of them. And he wrote that down on a napkin and pushed it toward me and he said if you don’t use that, you’re crazy.
TL: Of course I would have used that. It really is worth about a hundred endorsements. And the other endorsement is Pete Seeger. So that ties in nicely because it happens to be the subject of your album, which is called To Everyone And All The World A Celebration of Pete Seeger. So congratulations. It’s a wonderful album.
JM: Thank you. It was a complete labor of love to do it. And as I think I may have written in the notes. It’s an album I’ve been waiting most of my life to make.
TL: And that ties into my next question, why now? Why did you feel like now is the right time for this album?
JM: I think there are a lot of reasons. The most basic and obvious is that 2019 is the 100th anniversary of Pete’s birth. And I’m one of those weird people and I have found that there’s more and more because I’m a student of history, I will post something on Facebook, which I do about once every 100 years. And today is the 100th birthday of the birth of Jackie Robinson. Or today is the 100th anniversary of the composition of Solidarity Forever. And I’ve realized in 2012 I did a 100th birthday album for Woody Guthrie because he was my first great influence. And then in 2015 I did an album in honor of the 100th anniversary of the death of the great labor songwriter Joe Hill. And I knew at that time that the next album I was going to tackle of cover songs was going to be honoring Pete’s 100th birthday.
TL: The timing tied in really well with the 100th year anniversary or 100th birthday of Pete Seeger. It worked out. So you have some great players and contributors on the album. How did some of those partnerships come about?
JM: Almost all of them are people that I had either recorded with before or who were old friends of mine. And who seemed like the perfect musical partner with which to execute the kind of idea I had for how to treat a particular song. For instance, I sung Well May The World Go for years and I thought, well wouldn’t it be great to give this a full bluegrass band setting? And Tim O’Brien has been on almost all my albums. He’s an old friend of mine. And so I thought, let’s ask Hot Rize. I mean it’s hard to get better than Hot Rize. And when I thought about doing If I Had A Hammer as a Cajun song there was no question on my mind about who do you get. You get Beau Fillet. And again we’d been friends for years.
Stuart Duncan is a great friend of mine. He’s played on probably half of my albums. The Steel Wheels were a young band that I’ve met. There’s a festival in Kansas that we’re together every year. And they purposefully put us back to back. So we’re playing in one another’s sets at the festival. It was sort of a natural evolution that we would go into the studio together. Katia Cardenal I met back in the early 1980’s when she and her brother Salvador were touring up in this country. And I went down and visited them in Nicaragua. And Corey Harris and I both lived in the same town for while. Believe me it was an easy call to make. I say, “Hey, I’m doing this album honoring Pete Seeger. Do you want to be a part of it?” Everybody said yes.
TL: That’s wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
JM: Well Pete was more than a musician. He was a cultural figure. He introduced people to music via elementary school songbooks. I mean if you went through the folk songs that are included in your elementary school songbooks, many of those were first recorded by Pete Seeger. He would go into the Library of Congress Folk Music Archive and get these songs and disseminate them. Make records of them. Make children’s albums. Long before anyone thought about making children’s albums. He was really introducing America to himself. And then he continued to do that, what with his work with The Weavers. And then with The Weavers when he became blacklisted, he introduced America to himself again by testifying in front of the McCarthy Commission and refusing to invoke the 5th Amendment as so many people did, simply saying these are questions no American should be asked.
When people heard that, they thought, “Well of course that’s the right answer. Why didn’t anybody else think of this?” And then he started focusing on cleaning up his own backyard, or more accurately his own front yard on the Hudson River and proved that all politics are local. And was able to create this thing that brought people together across political and ideological spectrums because they all shared the river. It wasn’t something that belonged to one side and not the other. It was a shared resource. It needed help and we were going have to work together to do it. He was far more than just a musician. He was a great songwriter, of course he was a great instrumentalist, he was a thought leader, he was the conscience of the entertainment community.
TL: In my review of your album, I called him a social activist and a humanitarian as well.
JM: That would be an accurate way of describing him, yes.
TL: Because I think the gift he gave the world was music.
JM: Well he did do that, yes. One of the things that he really showed to dumb kids like me back when I was 13 years old that music meant something.
It was more than just cotton candy for the ears. It could move heads yes, but it could also move mountains. And what you said and how you said it, it made me pay attention to the words is something that folk music has always done; it has a story to tell. And Pete showed a light on the fact that maybe they’ll listen to that story.
TL: Are there any songs on this collection in particular that stand out to you?
JM: Oh, well it was not easy to pick just this many songs. I mean 15 songs in this day in age is a pretty generous album.
TL: Absolutely. Yes.
JM: Well oh golly. I loved the way that Sailing Down My Golden River turned out. It was a song that I remember buying the album, which I think was actually Pete’s last major label album. I don’t even remember what it was called; oh it was called Rainbow Ray. And I think Sailing Down My Golden River was the first cut on the album, and I remember listening to that song over and over again. I was transfixed by it and I never ever thought about performing it because I thought I can’t do it better than that, but I knew I had to buck up my courage and try it for this album. [Suzy Bogguss] and I have dueted numerous times on my albums. I love singing with her and she covers my many faults with her beautiful singing. And I just love the way it turned out.
TL: Yeah. Me too. In fact, I commented how great your voices sound together.
JM: Thank you.
TL: Yeah. It was perfect. I’m sure it’s a credit to her, but also a credit to you too. You’re a good singer.
JM: Well I, you know, people like Suzy have helped me learn how to be a good singer. And I really loved Turn, Turn, Turn. It’s such a different take on the song. And I love singing—I love doing anything with The Steel Wheels. They were just in town this week in fact. We had breakfast together. I’m really glad; I’m really pleased with they way that one turned out.
TL: Yeah. I thought for two reasons. First of all, I thought your version was great and so different than The Birds version. And a lot of people don’t know that Pete wrote that song.
JM: Well he had a little help from God (laughter). Most of the words are from the book of Ecclesiastics. Of course, in fact, Pete used to say to me, “You know, John, I only wrote the last six words of that song”.
TL: Whatever it was, it resonates with people.
JM: One of the interesting things about touring with this album is I’ve been punctuating the songs with stories of my time with Pete or discovering a particular song as a kid and when I start singing the songs themselves the singing is just so robust and heartfelt and loud. And I’ve done singing in my concerts for years, but it’s nothing like what’s happening now. And Pete gave people permission to just really let her rip. And I think it also speaks to how much people want and miss that.
TL: Absolutely. They yearn for it because, well I won’t speak for the masses, but I think people are generally tired of being spoon-fed music that isn’t necessarily good, but it’s someone else’s idea of what they want us to listen to. And I think people are tired of it.
JM: I think even if it’s good, I think people like to do something that they can, you know, participate in as well. If they like doing things as individuals, there’s also this desire to do something as a group. And there’s less and less of that happening now. I mean if you look at our parent’s generation. Our parents played in bowling leagues or belonged to the Rotary Club or any Church.
TL: Or even poker night or women’s bridge night.
JM: Right. And those kinds of organizations and events are happening less and less. So when people go out and, I mean hell people aren’t even going to movies now, people are going to concerts because everything has been personalized to people’s homes. So when you get together with a group of people and all of a sudden you realize, “Oh wait a minute. We all know this song”. And in Pete’s case they not only know one song, they know all the words. It’s one thing to say sing this chorus, it’s another thing to sing If I Had A Hammer. And that was the thing when I was a kid when I was 11 years old. My mother made me watch the march on Washington. I’d never heard of it before, but there it was.
There was Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, and Peter Paul & Mary. And when Peter Paul & Mary sang If I Had A Hammer, they didn’t identify it as a Pete Seeger song. I didn’t know for years it was a Pete Seeger song. But I remember very vividly watching this thing on television and as the cameras panned through the crowd every single person was singing. I mean old and young and black and white, people in the back of the crowd and people up on the stage. Everybody knew all the words to this song. It was a zipper song really if I had a hammer, if I had a bell, if I had a song everything else is the same. It’s not like it’s difficult to learn. But it was a powerful moment and it was designed for participation. That was Pete’s M.O. you know? You get people agreeing to sing together and maybe they can work together. Maybe they can feel a kinship. They can understand that this group can accomplish something singing harmony, for instance, that one of them alone could never have accomplished.
TL: Music is a way of building relationships, building bridges; it knocks down people’s defenses.
JM: It’s sneaky too (laughter). You don’t realize. You’re sitting next to your racist uncle, and you know that because of Thanksgiving dinner, and all of the sudden he knows all the words to If I Had A Hammer.
TL:  (Laughter).
JM:     Hmm, I wonder if he realizes how incongruous this is, and he’s wondering why you know the words to this song. You’re too young to know this song. And all of the sudden you have a different picture about someone you had already made your mind up about. And that’s one of the great things that it’s a very sneaky medium.
TL: Yes. Talk about incongruous. You mentioned the American Songbook. We used to sing This Land Is Your Land as if it were a pro American song. And I don’t think that’s what Woody Guthrie had in mind.
JM: I had a long discussion with Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, who’s an old friend of mine about the evolution of—the popular story is, of course, that Woody wrote This Land Is Your Land as a response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.
TL: Yes. That’s what I heard.
JM: And yes, he heard God Bless America. And in fact the original title of the song you can see on the original manuscript was God Bless America For Me. But Nora’s take is that her dad—Irving Berlin was a Russian Jew and he was an immigrant—I’m married to a Cuban refugee. I’ve seen what it means to an immigrant, especially a refugee, to come into a country and have this great feeling of gratitude and love for it. So Nora was saying Berlin was writing from the perspective of the immigrant. And Woody was writing from the perspective of the migrant. Of someone who has traveled around the country being homeless within their own country and yet feeling that the whole country is theirs. And so it was an interesting perspective hearing her talk that way. And people make up their own minds about what this song is. In the Baltimore Oriels Friday night games, instead of singing God Bless America, they sing This Land Is Your Land. And people sing it with the same kind of put your hand on your heart, take your hat off, kind of thing that they do with God Bless America.
TL: That’s the way that I learned it in school. It was like a pro democracy song. I love the irony of it though even if it’s not true (laughter) it just makes me laugh how most people don’t know the rest of the story.
JM: Like I said, the gestation stories of songs are one thing, what they become is another story altogether.
TL: So is it true that you’re skilled at playing 15 instruments?
JM: I can get around on 15 instruments. There’s probably about seven or eight that I’ll play during the course of a concert. To me it’s like having a toolbox. You don’t go to a carpenter and say, “Oh my God I can’t believe you can use a screwdriver and a saw”.
TL:  That’s true, but playing a banjo is a little more complicated (laughter).
JM: I don’t know. There’s guys that I’ve seen do wonders with a saw. And to me it’s just having the right sonic environment in which to express a song. So some nights I might play a particular song with a guitar, the next time might be a banjo, the next time might be a piano. It just depends on what mood at that particular time.
TL: I looked at your touring schedule and it’s quite extensive. Have you thought about scaling back a little bit due to the incredible demands of touring and being on the road.
JM: Especially since I’ve done it for 47 years. Yeah I’ve been thinking about it. On one hand I really love what I do. I mean if I never had to get on another airplane or take a five-hour drive in a car—when they perfect astral projection, I’m the first one who’s going to sign up. Once you get out there with a group of people with a few hundred people in a little dark room it’s a wonderful ride. And I love that. I’m sure I’m looking forward to doing it less, but there’s two things that factor into it. One, I feel like I’m finally learning how to do it really well. And, you know, there have been periods and times in my life where I thought I’m getting this and then a few years later and I go I was wrong. I thought I was getting it, but I’m so much better now. So I feel like I’m doing the best work that I’ve ever done in live performance. The second thing is my wife is a writer who is taking a big chunk of time off.
That has really scaled back her work this year because she has a couple of novels that she has to finish. So I’m kind of stepping up. And there’s been a lot of interest because of this album and because it’s the 100th anniversary of Pete’s Birth. Every folk organization and club in the world is doing Pete Seeger 100th birthday concert. And so now I’m getting a lot of calls cause when I put out the Woody Guthrie album in 2012 I put it out actually in late 2011 thinking I’d get the jump on all the many Woody Guthrie tribute albums that were going to be out there. And in fact there weren’t any. So it’s mine. And I did the same thing with this one thinking, “Come on. It’s Pete Seeger. He just passed away five years ago. Everyone is going to want to do something”. And it’s February now and I haven’t heard of anything on the horizon so maybe going back to that whole 100th birthday anniversary thing, maybe I’m a weirdo in that I think this kind of remembrance is worth remembering. Or is worth doing something about.
TL: I don’t think you’re a weirdo at all and I think there’s a lot of people that like this kind of stuff and would celebrate it if they knew. I think part of it is just awareness. It’s hard to let people know these things if they’re not plugged into the certain communities where you find out about this. And that’s unfortunate.
JM: Maybe my little grain of sand on the balance will be that it will make people pay attention to this sort of thing.
TL: Yeah. I hope so. And I think it will. So in your 47 plus year career as a musician, composer, songwriter, etc., what are some of your crowing moments or achievements and what are you most proud of?
JM: I think the fact that I’ve been able to avoid gainful employment for that long is really past it. It’s something that my kids looked at and said, “You know, from afar this looks really cool, but we live in the same house with this guy. We know how difficult and unlikely this is”. So they’ve both got, my two sons and my three daughters all have legitimate work. There are two things that really stick out, if you’re talking about particular events. And they both involve children. In 1991 I did a tour of the Soviet Union with a Russian singer named Gregory Gladkov. And it turns out that we did five weeks here in the United States and five weeks in the Soviet Union; I found out later after the Soviet Union fell, which was just months after our tour that it was in fact the only time any pair of musicians had toured together in both countries.
But while I was there, when I was over there I took my family with me and I remember coming up to Red Square, and you come out of the subway and it’s sort of elevated. So you’re walking up this small hill until you get to this great flat place and everyone sees the Kremlin and dazzles. It’s a classic shot. And we’re coming up there and as I’m walking up the hill, I got my seven-year-old son and my nine-year-old son one in each hand and I’m thinking, “I’m never going to sell a million records. I’m never going to be a big star. I’m never going to be performing on the Grammy’s or anything like that” to reference something that just happened, but I’m successful enough that I was able to bring my children here to this place. When I was their age I was hiding under my desk in a Cold War era raid drill.
TL: Duck and Cover.
JM: Because of the work that I do, my sons are going to grow up having a completely different vision of these people than I grew up with. And if that’s not success, I don’t know what is. And the other image that comes to mind is I used to tour Alaska almost every year. And I was playing in the town that I always begin my tours, Cordova which is on the Prince William Sound. Because it takes forever to get up to Alaska I would arrive a day or two early. And I got to know a lot of people in town because I would be there free for a day or two just getting used to the time change and the hectic schedule that was about to ensue.
I’m playing in the high school gymnasium auditorium and it’s a Tuesday night and in a lot of these small towns around Alaska when something happens like a concert everybody comes because they do. And because I’ve known this town so well I’ve written a lot, especially about small commercial fishing. And there was one particular song that I had written specifically about Cordova. And here’s half the town in the auditorium listening to me sing this song. Some of them have heard me sing it many times. And there’s this little girl in the front row sitting with her mother, and halfway through the song she turns to her mother and in a stage whisper says, “Mom, he’s singing about us”. And I thought, “That’s my Grammy”. Right there. I mean you want to connect with someone who’s different from you. You’re writing about them. You’re maybe writing from their perspective. And to get them to recognize that and affirm that and feel proud of that—I can’t imagine a greater compliment.
TL: And it’s organic. It wasn’t contrived.
JM: Right. It was a kid. It wasn’t a standing ovation. It wasn’t a pat on the back. It was a kid just recognizing themselves in the song that I had created.
TL: So you’ve done your work as a songwriter. That’s perfect. So where can people find out about you? What’s going on with your projects and tour dates?
JM: Well I do have a website, like who doesn’t? And it’s easy to remember because it’s www. folkmusic.com; yeah nobody had it.
TL: Wow.
JM: There are people who keep things up there for me, but specifically my tour dates are there. I have a monthly email newsletter. You can sign up for that. There’s a space where when I get organized enough, I post blogs. But mainly it will show you projects that I’m’ involved with, the songwriting workshops. And the tour dates and recording projects and various things and so on.
TL: That’s great. I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in that. I know I am. I want to thank you for spending time with you today. It’s been an honor speaking with you.
JM: And for me as well, thank you.
TwangriLa’s review of To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger
Buy To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger
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